How Li Qingzhao’s poetry became classic in the West

By TU HUI / 07-04-2019 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A portrait of Li Qingzhao Photo: FILE


Li Qingzhao, or Li Ch’ing-chao in the Wade-Giles Romanization system, was a female writer and poet in the Song Dynasty (960–1279). She has been considered one of the greatest poets in Chinese history.

Good at depicting daily life and mental changes, Li is not only well-known in China, but has been well received in the West. She is so far the most highly regarded Chinese woman poet in the English-speaking world, with her works ranked as classics.


From translation to biography
The Chinese-to-English translation of Li’s ci, a type of lyric poetry in the tradition of classical Chinese poetry, started in the first half of the 20th century, predominantly in Britain. However, prior to the 1950s, only a few of her ci poems had been rendered into English.

The earliest English translations of Li’s ci poetry were seen in The Herald Wind: Translations of Sung Dynasty Poems, Lyrics and Songs by British translator Clara Candlin, which was published in London in 1933. The book included two of Li’s ci poems, “To the Melody of Sheng Sheng Man” and “To the Tune of Wu Ling Spring.” The translations were concise and fluent.

In 1937, Chinese translator Ch’u Ta-kao translated and published Chinese Lyrics during his study at Cambridge University. He also translated the piece “To the Tune of Wu Ling Spring” in his book.

In 1949, The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry from the Earliest Times to the Present Day edited by British poet Robert Payne collected three of Li’s ci works translated by modern Chinese writer Sophia Chen.

In the late 1950s, as a range of poetic activities were in full swing in San Francisco, dubbed as the San Francisco Renaissance, the US saw a second wave of classical Chinese poetry translation following early 1920s Imagism.

Kenneth Rexroth, a central figure in the Renaissance, was the first to translate Li’s ci poetry. In 1956, he translated 100 ancient Chinese poems, some of which were translated from other Western languages and later checked against the original, and published them under the title One Hundred Poems From the Chinese. Seven of Li’s ci poems were translated in the book, marking the beginning of the dissemination of Li’s works in the US.

In the 1960s, Chinese-American Sinologists played a crucial role in the translation of Li’s poetry. In 1962, Chinese-American scholar Kai-yu Hsu published the essay “The Poems of Li Ch’ing-chao,” offering an analysis of the artistic features of Li’s works along with 17 translations. Later seven out of the 17 pieces were incorporated into the Anthology of Chinese Literature compiled by renowned American Sinologist Cyril Birch. The anthology also recorded five ci poems translated jointly by poets C.H. Kwock and Vincent McHugh.

In 1966, Wu-chi Liu, a scholar of Chinese literature and a writer, translated four of Li’s ci works in his English book An Introduction to Chinese Literature, in which he also informed English-speaking readers of the biographical elements in Li’s works.

According to Liu, Li Qingzhao’s works made a great contribution to the rhythm and musical quality of ci poetry. They gave a faithful portrayal of feminine tenderness and transcended the limitations of previous ci poets, Liu said.

In the same year, the English-speaking world saw its first research monograph detailing Li’s life and artistic features—modern poet and literary translator Hu Pin-ch’ing’s Li Ch’ing-chao. The book was published by Twayne Publishers as a part of the Twayne’s World Authors Series, including 53 translations of Li’s ci poetry. In addition, the author analyzed Li’s works from multiple perspectives to give a look into the artistic characteristics of classical Chinese poetry.


From selected to complete translation
The English-speaking world in the 1970s witnessed many translations of Li’s ci poems. Kenneth Rexroth was one of the most important translators during the period. He translated a great number of Li’s ci works in a creative way, and the translations won wide acclaim among English-speaking readers.

In 1970, he translated another round of more than 100 classical Chinese poems building on his work One Hundred Poems From the Chinese. He published them under the title Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred Poems From the Chinese. The later work contained six pieces of Li’s ci poetry, more than any other of the ancient Chinese poets he translated. Among others, the piece “A Blooming Plum” was modified from the previous edition.

In 1972, Rexroth collaborated with Taiwan-Chinese writer and translator Chung Ling to publish The Orchid Boat, which was reprinted as Women Poets of China. They translated a total of more than 100 works from 53 women poets, and Li’s works took the largest share, numbering seven.

In 1979, the two worked together again to translate the Complete Poems of Li Ch’ing-chao, which included 50 ci poems and 17 verses of the great poet. The book was divided into seven parts according to the life experiences of Li and the content of her works: “Youth,” “Loneliness,” “Exile,” “Her Death,” “Politics,” “Mysticism” and “Old Age.” Rexroth’s translation was highly recognized in the West and further acquainted Western readers with Li and her ci poetry.

Chinese-American comparative literature scholar and translator Eugene Eoyang also contributed a great deal to promoting the translation and dissemination of Li’s ci poetry in the English-speaking world. In 1975, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry, a famous anthology of around 1,000 Chinese poems translated into English edited by Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, recorded the 13 of Li’s ci poems that Eoyang translated. Later Eoyang translated another nine of her ci poems, totaling 22 works. In 1999, Eoyang’s translations were collected in the voluminous anthology of Chinese women’s literature Women Writers of Traditional China—An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism edited by Kang-i Sun Chang, a Chinese-born American scholar of classical Chinese literature, and American Sinologist Haun Saussy.

In the 1960s and 1970s, London also saw two anthologies of Chinese poetry come out: A Collection of Chinese Lyrics (1965) compiled by Duncan Mackintosh and Alan Avling and Love & Protest: Chinese Poems from the Sixth Century B.C. to the Seventeenth Century (1972) edited by John Scott. The two works both selected Li’s works, two in the former and one in the latter.

In the 1980s, the enthusiasm for Li continued to grow in the American academic and literary communities. In 1980, San Francisco-based North Point Press published C.H. Kwock and Vincent McHugh’s Old Friend From Far Away: 150 Chinese Poems from the Great Dynasties, which contained 20 of Li’s ci poems.

In 1984, the Plum Blossom: Poems of Li Ch’ing-chao compiled by James Cryer was published, with 54 of Li’s ci works translated within. In the same year, American Sinologist and translator Burton Watson published The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From the Early Times to the 13th Century, which included four of his own translations of Li’s ci poems.

In the late 1980s, the University of Pennsylvania Press published The Complete Ci-Poems of Li Qingzhao: A New English Translation by Chinese translator Wang Jiaosheng. The book generated tremendous influence, and foreign scholars spoke highly of the translations.

Reputed American Sinologist Victor Mair praised Wang’s work as some of the most exquisite, feeling translations of Chinese poems he had ever encountered. In 1994, Mair dropped other translations of Li’s poetry in favor of 10 of Wang’s translations when editing The Columbia History of Chinese Literature.

Wang’s translations are faithful to the Chinese original. He strove not only to reflect the unique style of the original, such as its use of vernacular and function words, but also to represent the original feel. In order to make it easier for Western readers to understand Li’s works, Wang came up with subtitles for most of her ci poems. In addition, he also annotated allusions and poetic techniques.


From anthologies to classics
Since the 1990s, Western academics have taken an increasingly deep interest in Li Qingzhao. Quite a few influential literary anthologies in the English-speaking world have incorporated her works. In 1994, poet and translator Julie Landau translated 15 pieces of Li’s ci poetry in her book Beyond Spring: Tz’u (Ci) Poems of the Sung Dynasty.

In 1996, Chinese-American scholar Hwang Chang-wei selectively translated four of Li’s ci poems in his Ten Excellent Works of the Chinese Classical Literature. In the same year, American sinologist Stephen Owen likewise translated four pieces in An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911.

In 2006, American scholar J.P. Seaton recorded seven of Li’s ci poems translated by Cryer in The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry, again more than any other Chinese ci poet in the collection.

Li’s ci poetry features superb and delicate artistic expressions, graceful images and fresh language, such that many Chinese and foreign translators have tried to translate them. Some of the works have been regarded as exemplary English translations.

Several poems have been re-translated many times. The top five are: “To the Tune of Wu Ling Spring,” “To the Tune of Like A Dream” (the piece that opens with “I always remember the sunset over the pavilion by the river”), “To the Melody of Sheng Sheng Man,” “A Blooming Plum” and “To the Tune of Like A Dream” (the piece that opens with “Last night a sprinkling of rain, a violent wind”). To a great extent, this reflects English-speaking readers’ acknowledgement of Li’s literary accomplishments. Under the joint influences of translators, critics and anthologies, the status of her works as classics in the English-speaking world has been gradually established.


Tu Hui is from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

​edited by CHEN MIRONG